Susan Marrash-Minnerly, MFA-Chair, Department of Communications/Associate Professor of Theatre, West Virginia State University (2009)

My disability is nearly invisible – I have had insulin-dependent diabetes for more than fifty years.  People frequently say to me, “But you don’t look like a diabetic!” I have, on occasion, asked what a diabetic looks like.

Our thirteen-year-old son’s disability is a little more obvious – he has autism and mild mental retardation. We have faced no little amount of discrimination on his behalf.  A church refused to allow him to continue in a day care program that he loved simply because he received an official diagnosis of autism. His behavior had never been a problem and the staff continually told us how much they enjoyed having him there.  The session of this church then passed a resolution that they would accept no child with any kind of disability. (I have a friend whose young daughter goes there, and he was concerned they would expel her when she needed glasses.) We have had people tell us that we should have left Nathan at home rather than bring him out in public. We have had total strangers reprimand him in front of us for not “listening” to them. So issues of diversity and disability are near and dear to my heart.

Just prior to the 2008 annual convention of the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC), entitled “Celebrating Diversity in Theatre,” I was offered the opportunity to write an article about non-traditional casting for Southern Theatre Magazine.  SETC is the largest regional theatre organization in the country and annually draws more than 4500 people to its convention. “Celebrating Diversity…” was focused primarily on  racial and cultural diversity. I returned home armed with contacts who provided me with a wealth of  information about successful racially-diverse casting. During my ensuing research, I read the 2008 article, What Is Non-Traditional Casting? by University of Maryland law professor Taunya Lovell Banks.  She summarizes succinctly that “…’non-traditional casting’ refers most often to ‘cross-racial’ casting…A more comprehensive definition of nontraditional casting is the ‘use of actors of any race, sex, ethnicity or degree of disabilities in roles for which such factors are not germane to the development of stage characters or the play…For many in theater and film communities, non-traditional casting simply means fair hiring.”  Talent and fair-hiring. What a concept!

The article was progressing, and I talked with  Fran Kirk, at Fairmont State University in West Virginia, who said she was once told by a director from Atlanta’s Alliance theatre that “your cast should look like your audience.” I ask in the article whether casting in most theatres reflects the broad diversity of the American populace, and note that although” inclusive casting” is most often used to refer to “cross-racial” casting, there are other marginalized groups who most certainly deserve attention.” And the article that I had expected to write about racially diverse casting with a token mention of casting actors with disabilities took a completely different turn.

I looked up the Nontraditional Casting Project and discovered it had been renamed The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. It  felt like déjà vu all over again when I read their mission statement, which: “is to achieve a theatre, film and television industry that more accurately reflects our populace; where each artist is considered on her/his merits as an individual; where the stories being told reflect our communities; and where our individual humanity and forms of expression can be celebrated.”

I tracked down executive director, Sharon Jenson  who said that media portrayals of people with disabilities have negatively influenced public opinion. They are “too often over-sentimentalized; treated as something less-than or more-than human. There is so much misperception and misinterpretation.” Amen, I say, acknowledging the countless times my husband and I have remarked on the fact that people tend to treat our precious son as something slightly less than human – sort of like a pet.

Misperceptions abound, and  Teal Sherer, a California-based actor, says that the media is largely responsible for those misperceptions. “Most people don’t have personal contact with anyone with a disability, and unless people with disabilities are portrayed accurately in the media…most people have no reference point. How do they know who we  are or what we can do?”

Christine Bruno, actor and Disability Advocate with the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, says that “If you’re not seen in the American media, you don’t exist….Of course there are representations of people with disabilities, but how accurate are they?”  How many times do we see non-disabled actors playing disabled characters? “There’s a saying in the industry that the surest way to win an Oscar is to play someone with a disability.”

After I finished the article for Southern Theatre,  and as I was beginning to think about this piece for the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, a new semester began at West Virginia State University, the historically black university where I teach. In my acting class was something I had never before encountered: a young man in a wheel chair. Being determined to treat him “like everyone else” so he didn’t feel left out as my son so often does, I was able to adapt exercises and activities fairly easily (with some valuable advice from Teal) so that standing on your feet or lying on the floor weren’t requisite.  The thing that stunned me was how often I used the word “walk” – the assumption of normalcy. What do actors do, I asked? They walk and talk. Well, they move and talk. Walk across the stage – move across the stage Walk over here.  Walk toward your partner.

These experiences — writing the article, teaching this acting class – have led me into a lot of introspection. And I admit that not all of it has been fun. After a lifetime of believing that I live genuinely without bias; after years of thinking, Good God why can’t people just treat Nathan like a human being; I have come to realize that we are all programmed and predisposed to see things in categories: “normal” or not. I remember a woman in our church once saying to my husband  “You know, [Nathan] just seems normal.” Doug’s reply to her was, “He is normal. That’s normal for him.”

We are  all stained by the stereotypes of the past, and we still seem unable to see people as people rather than as an exception to a socially-constructed “norm.”   I am fairly certain that there are no easy solutions to changing these misperceptions. The only thing of which I am absolutely certain is that we will never fulfill our  potential as a society until everyone is treated as fully human – without pity or  disgust, condescension or fear.

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